Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Langtry School

Doug Braudaway
Southwest Texas Junior College, 207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840
(830) 703-1554; dlbraudaway@swtjc.edu

Langtry, Texas—current population thirteen—was once home to a school with an enrollment of a hundred students every year. Most visitors to the town stop at the Visitor Center maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation—the home of Judge Roy Bean, a nationally known historic figure. For the passers-through, the Center is the center of town. Nevertheless, most townspeople (and their families and descendents) will say that the old school, now a community center, is the real center of town.

The first Langtry schoolhouse, constructed of railroad ties, was in use as early as 1900. During her famous 1904 visit, Lillie Langtry donated fifty dollars to enlarge the school.1 In the early years, students “never had more than six months of school, and it was hard for our folks to keep us in school that long. We had to buy our own textbooks, and oh, they were high.”2 Teachers included Polly Iredale, Winnie Elkins, Minnie Schupbach, Medea Garner, Lena Hereford, Kitty Wickham, Carrie Britton, Eva Strickland, and Hazel Belk. Most of the teachers were from out of town; only a few were native to Langtry or other Val Verde communities.3 (The following photo of the schoolhouse is in Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, page 161.)

langtry school image 1

During the 1920s, twenty-year olds sometimes attended class with first and second graders; and some students drove horses and/or cars to get into town to attend. Teachers were paid $1.50 extra a month for each student above “scholastic age.” Because of the range of ages at different skill levels, it could be difficult to tell who was in which grade. Reading, writing, civics, and math were the principle subjects, complemented by musical lessons but not much else. What extras were taught depended on the skills or backgrounds of the teachers. For example, boxing and other sports during the late 1930s were coached by teacher Douglas Newton, now better remembered as a senior lawyer in Del Rio. Sports programs, though, disappeared by the end of the 1930s. Ninth grade was the top level at this early school. Children wanting to attend high school moved to Del Rio for the school year.4

The second schoolhouse, built in 1911, was a long, frame building with tall steps into one end of the building, standing southwest of the currently-standing building (in the parking area between it and the Torres House). Essentially it was a one-room schoolhouse with portable partitions that divided it into classroom, but the building had two “cloakrooms” on either side of the entrance for hanging coats and storage. One year the teacher, Miss Mahaffe, used one of the rooms for sleeping and the other for cooking.5 (The following picture of the second school building is from Jack Skiles’ personal collection.)

A cupola on top of the building housed a # 20 bell manufactured by the Bell Co., Hillsboro, Ohio. The bell was rung by pulling on a rope suspended in one of the cloakrooms and was used to summon students to class. It could be heard all over town, and was also used to call folks to Sunday School held in the school house.6

langtry school image 2

After this school moved to its third building, this one was used for fund-raising dances and other activities sponsored by the Parent Teachers Association until 1945 when. It was torn down by Guy Skiles and the lumber used for construction of his store on US Highway 90. The bell was included in the sale, but Mrs. Skiles who taught at the school again in later years, had it erected on posts outside the building and used it until the school closed when she took it back home with her.7

In 1930 enrollment had grown to the extent that Johnnie Stewart had to hold classes in a small structure that had been built nearby to serve as the school’s woodshed. The students called it the Chicken House.8 As in modern times, school districts often use temporary buildings to house students in overcrowded situations. But the growth in the school population needed a better solution than overflow classes in a woodshed.

The third school building was built in 1934. This beautiful schoolhouse is now preserved as the Vashti Skiles Community Center Building, named for a long-time and well-respected teacher. It was not a one-room school, but the entire school, elementary and junior high grades, resided under one roof. The building had four classrooms, a cafeteria and kitchen, a meeting and performance room, and a number of closets. Restrooms were outside in two small buildings. There was no electricity in Langtry, so a lean-to was added to the girl’s restroom to house a direct current, Delco generator. The school building was heated with butane open-space heaters but there was no air conditioning. There was little housing available in Langtry, so a “teacherage” was built on the edge of the school grounds. It was only a one-bedroom house, but two female teachers often shared the structure. The school only went up to tenth grade; students wanting to complete secondary school (still) had to travel to (and generally live in during school weeks) other towns: Sanderson, Ozona or Del Rio.9 (The following photo shows the third Langtry schoolhouse during the 2007 Old Settlers Reunion.)

langtry school image 3

The auditorium was a center of activities at Langtry and numerous school and community activities were held there. The auditorium had a small stage, complete with foot-lights where students would present programs for their parents and other community members. A highlight of the school year was the annual Christmas program where the students performed skits, sang carols and recited poems, and the rhythm band made music with their sticks, horns, tambourines, drums and castanets.

Church services and Sunday School were held in the both school buildings, old and current. Pastors or priests gave monthly (or less often) services, often travelling from Del Rio. Some were just passing through, being fed by the local congregants for a time before moving on. Mexican and Anglo children attended school together, but did not attend religious services together in those days. Students regularly and normally carried knives to school, because people generally carried knives at that time in the rural environment. Knives were not the problem then. A more disturbing problem was students who would catch skunks and “get a little bit of skunk on them” to get thrown out of class and sent home.10

Showers, “42” parties (a dominos game popular in the days before television), cake walks and other activities were held in the auditorium by the Parent Teachers Association but Mexican American families rarely attended such activities. Finally the Mexican P.T.A. was organized and housed in the old Jimmy Merrett store, where their fund raising activities were held. While the Langtry schools were always integrated, brown and white folks did not mix socially.11

Val Verde County once had seven different school districts, five of them encompassing huge but sparsely populated territories. As the rural population has declined after the Second World War, those districts were consolidated and consolidated again. The Pumpville school (with a district covering the part of Val Verde County west and north of Langtry) was closed during the 1950s, and that district was consolidated into the Langtry district, adding a few more students to Langtry.12

Langtry’s turn came in 1972, when the Langtry School was closed; there simply were insufficient numbers of to maintain to the institution. The district and students became part of Comstock Independent School District, with its school about thirty miles to the southeast. Part of the deal was that the Langtry school property became a community center, as it remains to this day.13

The Val Verde County Historical Commission is not applying for an Recorded Texas Historic Landmark Medallion, but a description of the school building demonstrates that the historical elements of the building are preserved and that one-time students readily and easily recognize the place that provided their early years of education. The building is well designed for days before air conditioners, or even swamp coolers, a central hallway the length of the building creating a good breezeway, high plaster ceilings with tall exterior windows, and transom windows over most of the doors. Other features that have been preserved include

• the stage for school performances in a large room for extracurricular events,
• wood floors, probably over a pier-and-beam support,
• closets with doors that pull up to open; fully closed, the doors do not touch to the floor,
• slate blackboards,
• high windows in some of the rooms allowing good but indirect (cooler) light,
• stovepipe holes for the stoves that once heated the rooms, and
• a small kitchen able to serve into the cafeteria or into the large room.
The exterior is nearly the same though white paint has covered the light peach colored paint from years past.

The grounds are recognizable to visitors as well. The merry-go-round was installed in the 1940s; the swingsets were likely installed at the same time. A four-post wooden structure once held the school bell, the same historic bell used in the 1911 building. The bell “makes a sound you could hear all over town.”14

The community center was named after Vashti Skiles. Vashti Skiles “was a born teacher,” teaching from the 1940s until Langtry school closed in 1972. Other teachers are remembered, but they had usually moved on after a few years.15 Today, the structure is used for community meetings, elections, weddings, showers, funerals, birth day parties and other activities. This is the most important original place and building still standing and in use in all of Langtry. It is the center of a Langtry community that now spans the state and the country. The Vashti Skiles Community Center board and Val Verde County Historical Commission are ready to share this history with the rest of Texas. We are applying for a Subject Marker for the Langtry School. Once again, this little town of Langtry has proven to have history and heart.

Tourists will continue to visit the Texas Department of Transportation’s Roy Bean Center, and Roy Bean’s shadow will continue to loom large. But every year, the population of Langtry balloons from a mere dozen to more than a hundred as a few old-timers and many of their descendents return to the old schoolhouse for the annual Settlers and Old-timers Reunion in April. While the goat meat fries, folks will reminisce and catch up on Langtry’s history and family happenings. The school has been closed for nearly forty years, but once a year on a Saturday every April, School is in.

 

Endnotes—
Pete Billings and Jack Skiles, Langtry residents Walking Tour of the Town, Langtry Setters Reunion April 22, 2006.
Felix Harrison, Langtry resident, presentation at the Langtry Settlers Reunion 2003.
Pete Billings to D.B., April, 26, 2003.
Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, Texas Tech University Press, 1996.
Jack Skiles to DB, Nov. 12, 2007. Long-time resident Jack Skiles attended school in Langtry, and his mother Vashti Skiles taught in the school. This letter corrected and added to the narrative greatly.
Raymond Skiles, who grew up in Langtry, to D.B., April 26, 2003.
Vashti Skiles, “Langtry,” in Comstock: Family and Friends by the Comstock Study Club, privately printed, @1975.
Mary Uzzel, former Langtry resident and granddaughter of (THC subject marker recipient) W.H. Dodd, to D.B., Langtry Reunion 2004.

 

Endnotes--
1 Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, page 169.
2 Beula Burdwell Farley in Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, page 164.
3 Pete Billings and Jack Skiles, Langtry residents Walking Tour of the Town, Langtry Setters Reunion April 22, 2006; Vashti Skiles, “Langtry,” in Comstock: Family and Friends by the Comstock Study Club, privately printed, @1975; Felix Harrison; Jack Skiles.
4 Felix Harrison, Langtry resident, Langtry Settlers Reunion 2003; Mary Uzzel, former Langtry resident and granddaughter of (THC subject marker recipient) W.H. Dodd, to D.B., Langtry Reunion 2004; Pete Billings and Jack Skiles; Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, page 165; Jack Skiles to DB, Nov. 12, 2007.
5 Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, page 109.
6 Jack Skiles to DB, Nov. 12, 2007.
7 Jack Skiles.
8 Pete Billings to D.B., April, 26, 2003.
9 Pete Billings to D.B., April, 26, 2003; Jack Skiles.
10 Mary Uzzel.
11 Jack Skiles to DB, Nov. 12, 2007.
12 Vashti Skiles, “Langtry.”
13 Vashti Skiles, “Langtry.”
14 Raymond Skiles, who grew up in Langtry, to D.B., April 26, 2003
15 Mary Uzzel.